Marx's Critique of Hegel

paper by Cyril Smith for Hegel seminar 18th June 1999

As Hegel was the first to know, ‘every philosophy ... belongs to its own time and is caught in that time’s restriction’. But that raises a question: how can a philosophical outlook stay alive after its ‘time’ has passed? The answer to this question takes us beyond philosophical argumentation to a deeper penetration of ‘its own time’ and ours. That is why the key to what is alive in Hegel’s thought lies in Marx’s critique of it.

First, let’s say what Marx meant by ‘critique’. It was closely bound up with Hegel’s idea of ‘sublation’ [aufheben]: to negate, and thereby to preserve the inner truth of something. It is similar to Marx’s attitude to religion: it was not a matter of rejecting religious sentiment because it was ‘untrue’, without foundation, and then devising a new religious form. Rather, we have to uncover those aspects of a way of life which gave rise to religion — and then revolutionise those aspects. Religion was ‘the heart of a heartless world’, so the issue was to establish a world with heart. Instead of an illusory solution, we must, in practice, find a real one.

Hegel’s philosophical work was an attempt to summarise the essence of the entire history of philosophy, and for him that meant an entire history. So Marx’s critique of Hegel was a critique of philosophical science as such. He concluded that philosophy cannot answer the questions that philosophy has brought to the surface. In the end, those questions are not philosophical but practical. When Marx claimed that his work was scientific [wissenschaftlich], this did not mean that he was elaborating a set of doctrines, of ‘theories’, but that, by tracing the contradictions of existing science to their roots in the inhuman way in which humans lived, he could bring to light the necessity to revolutionise that way of life, to move from contemplation to ‘practical-critical’, revolutionary solutions.

This has little to do with the old story about Hegel the idealist and Marx the materialist, about Marx’s transition from ‘idealism’ and ‘democracy’ to ‘materialism’ and communism, or about Marx dropping Hegel’s conservative system, to preserve his revolutionary method. If you accept the collection of prejudices that used to be called ‘Marxism’, you are prevented from even beginning to answer our initial question. (And that’s a small part of your troubles.)

Throughout his life, Marx continually returned to Hegel, each time deepening both his differences and his agreement. Marx began his critique of Hegel with the history of Greek philosophy, in his Doctoral Thesis. He went on to a critical examination of Hegel’s summary of the history of political philosophy, the Philosophy of Right. After showing that Hegel’s conception of the modern state was based upon bourgeois economic relations, Marx could identify Hegel’s standpoint with that of political economy. Now he could begin his critique of the achievements of bourgeois economic thought, as the highest expression of the inhumanity of bourgeois society. At each stage of this work, Marx used his study of Hegel to penetrate to the essential connection between the philosophical attitude to the world and the oppressive, exploitative, inhuman nature of alienated social forms.

Marx’s Doctoral Thesis, which he worked on between 1839 and 1841, was on ‘The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophies of Nature’. His way of dealing with these two Greek atomists contradicted the opinions of Hegel — and almost everybody else — in that it emphasised the originality of Epicurus. Marx declares that his aim is to find the source of human self-consciousness and ideas in material reality. The other is his contention that philosophy must ‘turn outwards to the world’. Finding that existence does not measure up to essence, it must become practical, and ‘turn its will against the world of appearance’. (I: 85.) Moreover, ‘the world confronting a philosophy total in itself, is ... a world torn apart’. (I: 491) This gives the direction of Marx’s critique of religion. In opposition to Kant, Marx contends that religious belief is not just an illusion.

All gods, the pagan as well as the Christian ones, have possessed a real existence. Did not the ancient Moloch reign? Was not the Delphic Apollo a real power in the life of the Greeks? (I: 104)

In 1843, Marx began work on a line-by-line analysis of those sections of the Philosophy of Right dealing with the State. This is the summit of Hegel’s last work, in which he sought to show how the modern state power, rationally understood, reconciled the contradictions of ‘civil society’, that is, bourgeois society. Where civil society is ‘the battlefield of private interest’, philosophy showed how the state expressed the unity of a nation’s life. It was ‘the actuality of concrete freedom’. Marx’s critique of Hegel’s philosophy of the state allowed him to see that both civil society and the state were alien to a truly human life, which at that time he called ‘true democracy’.

Soon after he abandoned his work on the state, Marx made three moves forward, which changed his life: he saw the revolutionary importance of the proletariat; he discovered that what he meant by ‘true democracy’ was related to what others were calling ‘communism’; and he realised that he had to make a critical study of political economy. Hegel saw ‘spirit’ advancing like this: at each stage of its unfolding, spirit — the totality of human life and activity — finds itself in contradiction with what it has itself produced, which now confronts it as something alien. Philosophy reflects on this alienation, and overcomes it through this reflection, and this, argued Hegel, was how spirit created itself. The relation of the state to civil society was a prime example of this movement. In 1844, Marx’s critique of both philosophy and political economy reached the stage where he could find in Hegel’s categories an expression of something else: humanity certainly created itself — this was Hegel’s great discovery — but it was not the action of spirit which was fundamental, nor the work of philosophy, but material labour.

Thus Marx’s critique of Hegel had moved from the history of ancient philosophy, to the conception of the state. Then it emerged that ‘political forms originate in civil society and that the anatomy of civil society was to be found in political economy’. It was the critique of political economy which Marx concentrated upon for the rest of his life, but this can be misunderstood. Marx was not engaged in a ‘critique of capitalism’, as we often hear. That would be to fall into the utopian trap. His task was to study the highest theoretical expression of bourgeois relations, and show how these theories conceal the way that these relations deny what is essentially human. The relationships of the exchange of private property, presented by the Enlightenment as the basis for liberty, equality and fraternity, are actually ‘the opposite of the social relation’. Money and capital join people together, but only by separating them. Because society is fragmented, bourgeois social relations hold power over the individuals they relate. People treat each other — and themselves — as things, while capital becomes the real subject governing their lives.

Hegel had striven to express the way that freedom developed only at the level of the whole of society, what he called ‘Spirit’. Marx, who had gone beyond the traditional aims of philosophy, sought to uncover the possibility of the social individual, whose free development was the condition, without which ‘the free development of all’ could not come about.

Theses On Feuerbach

Written: by Marx in Brussels in the spring of 1845, under the title "1) ad Feuerbach";

Marx's original text was first published in 1924, in German and in Russian translation, by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism in Marx-Engels Archives, Book I, Moscow. The English translation was first published in the Lawrence and Wishart edition of The German Ideology in 1938. The most widely known version of the "Theses" is that based on Engels' edited version, published as an appendix to his Ludwig Feuerbach in 1888, where he gave it the title Theses on Feuerbach;

Translated: by Cyril Smith 2002, based on work done jointly with Don Cuckson.


The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism — that of Feuerbach included — is that the Object [der Gegenstand], actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object [Objekts], or of contemplation [Anschauung], but not as human sensuous activity, practice [Praxis], not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism — but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects [Objekte], differentiated from thought-objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective[gegenständliche] activity. In The Essence of Christianity [Das Wesen des Christenthums], he therefore regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and defined only in its dirty-Jewish form of appearance [Erscheinungsform][1]. Hence he does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary', of ‘practical-critical', activity.


The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness [Diesseitigkeit] of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.


The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change [Selbstveränderung] can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.


Feuerbach starts off from the fact of religious self-estrangement [Selbstentfremdung], of the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world, and a secular[weltliche] one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionised. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be annihilated [vernichtet]theoretically and practically.


Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, wants sensuous contemplation [Anschauung]; but he does not conceive sensuousness as practical, human-sensuous activity.


Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man [menschliche Wesen = ‘human nature']. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations. Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence is hence obliged:

1. To abstract from the historical process and to define the religious sentiment regarded by itself, and to presuppose an abstract — isolated - human individual.

2. The essence therefore can by him only be regarded as ‘species', as an inner ‘dumb' generality which unites many individuals only in a natural way.


Feuerbach consequently does not see that the ‘religious sentiment' is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual that he analyses belongs in reality to a particular social form.


All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.


The highest point reached by contemplative [anschauende] materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is the contemplation of single individuals and of civil society [bürgerlichen Gesellschaft].


The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society or social humanity.


Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

Some Reflections on the Healy Group

Cyril Smith

From New Interventions, Vol.8 No.1, 1997

IT is now 12 years since the explosive disintegration of the Healy group. Now that some of the pain associated with memories of life in the old Workers Revolutionary Party has evaporated, this may be a good time to reflect on its characteristics.

I know there are those who would disagree, preferring to forget the whole business, which they see as irrelevant to today’s concerns. I think they are very wrong. Taking this opportunity to rethink the many questions thrown up by the explosion is not just a matter of therapy (not that this aspect is to be neglected). Investigating our work in the Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party ought to provide a starting point for grasping those vast changes in the world since the 1970s, to which we were dogmatically impervious at the time.

Of course, there are several aspects of the work of the WRP/SLL of which we should not be ashamed, even if they did sometimes take rather bizarre forms. We maintained a consistent struggle for revolutionary and internationalist ideas within the British workers’ movement. We kept up a fight against the lies of Stalinism, before this activity became fashionable and almost mundane. We published the works of Leon Trotsky at a time when not many people took them seriously. We warned against the illusion that the economic boom would go on for ever.

But from the moment when I was told about Healy’s sexual activities, I began to see what I certainly should have seen much, much earlier: this was not a communist organisation. The more I tried to look objectively at the relations between the members of the WRP – especially, but not only, in its last, and craziest, period of work – the more obvious this became. Even the sexual aspects of Healy’s brutal leadership turned out to have been matters, not just of appetite, but of power. The opportunism of his latter days (over Libya, the PLO, Khomeini, Saddam, Livingstone, etc) could now also be clearly seen as the sacrifice of principle to the interests of the organisation as a source of his power.

We thought we were establishing a proletarian leadership, but nearly all real contact with life outside the party was regarded as sinful. In a movement whose aim was supposed to be the achievement of a ‘truly human’ society, truly human relations were sneered at, and were denounced as concessions to ‘bourgeois prejudice’. Essentially, members were not treated as fellow communists, but as objects. We regarded each other, and ourselves, as instruments of what we imagined to be some external purpose, something which we were not to question.

The attempt to attribute this cult-like quality to the shortcomings of one leader just won’t wash. If we hadn’t all accepted the kind of regime which held sway, we wouldn’t have stayed around. This was ‘Bolshevism’ in action, we told ourselves, as we interpreted Healy’s brutality as ‘decisiveness’. It is important for each of us to take due responsibility for this acceptance, not because of some obscure need to expiate our guilt, but because this has to be made the beginning of new knowledge. In the light of the discovery that analogous phenomena were observed in many other sections of the Trotskyist movement throughout the world, we must ask: what did the rise to prominence of such regimes tell us about the character of the Fourth International in the postwar period, and about the relationship of the class struggle to communism?

Some people asked: did it matter? Wasn’t this merely a defect of form, of style, which could have been corrected? Wasn’t the content of the WRP’s activities basically sound? I believe it is just the other way round. Healy’s characteristic weaknesses, or those of Lambert, or Lora, or Moreno, or several others, determined only the form taken by the degeneration of the movement. Although I resisted the idea at first, I believe the essence of the problem lay much deeper than the personality of any individual, however dominant.

As we tried to ‘reconstruct’ Trotskyism in 1985-86, some of us found it helpful to assert that ‘the basis of a movement was its theory’. If we made sure that was OK, other aspects would come right, we said. Although we had always paid lip-service to the idea of ‘theory’, we now attempted to take it more seriously in the light of the revealed degeneration of the organisation. That was what I wanted to explore in that little booklet — Communist Society and Marxist Theory — I did in 1987. It was a step forward, I suppose, but only a tiny one. I now regard it as no more than scraping the surface, sticking on a patch here and there.

The WRP presented itself as a ‘monolithic’ body, founded on Marxism, ‘a complete, integral world outlook’ (Plekhanov), ‘cast from a single sheet of steel’ (Lenin). Despite all our talk of a ‘unified world outlook’, the dazzling light of the explosion revealed that, all along, it had been made up of a startling mixture of quite opposed outlooks. Every reactionary and corrupt aspect of bourgeois life, from thinly-disguised religion to something near to fascism, found its reflection inside our party. (It is important to look at the subsequent antics of each of the fragments which were thrown off in the blast. However hard it might be to accept, each splinter does exhibit an aspect of ourselves.)

The thinking which prevailed in the group was really little more than the acceptance of dogma. ‘The masses’ were seen increasingly as the raw material and instrument of the party, which was the repository of ideological purity. For about 18 months after the autumn of 1985, there was a certain amount of hard thinking. Severely shaken by the upheaval, we attempted to re-read some of the basic texts, and to review the history of the International.

Then, just when it began to get interesting, the discussion petered out. What rethinking was done, now took place within a particular framework, in which the task was to keep intact as much of the old system of ideas as possible, rather than tracing the problems to their source. This attitude – perhaps it is still taken by some of us – makes a real regeneration impossible, for it limits the kinds of question you are able to ask.

I don’t think I was wrong to emphasise then that we had neglected the idea of communism, and concentrated instead on some rather vaguely-understood ideas of revolution. We were sure that the power of capital persisted only because of what theTransitional Programme had called ‘the crisis of leadership’. We talked a lot about ‘the taking of power’, modelling this notion largely on the experience of 1917 in Russia. For this, we believed, a Bolshevik-type party, organised on the lines of democratic centralism, was essential. The outcome of all this was to be a workers’ state.

Certainly, the Healy group was a caricature of ‘Bolshevik-Leninism’. But caricature means exaggerating features actually found in the original. Look at this connected set of notions, central to the entire character of the group: firstly, taking power; secondly, a centralised party; thirdly, a workers’ state. There is a common thread running through these three, which has nothing to do with Marx’s conception of communism: subjectivity is located in a self-appointed body, situated outside the workings of existing society.

Marx understood that communism developed within bourgeois society itself, as the productive forces grew. These were centred on the proletariat, now the true subject of history. As it organised itself to fight for the recognition of its own humanity against the inhuman power called capital, the workers became conscious of themselves as a class. At the heart of this process was the understanding that to emancipate itself from the power of capital meant preparing itself for communism, that is, the emancipation of the whole of humanity from private property. The essence of revolution was not ‘capturing state power’, but of breaking up the state as such, dissolving it in the community of associated producers. Any violence arose, not in the attempt to impose new social forms on an unwilling world, but in overcoming the old, inhuman forms.

Marx never spoke about a ‘workers’ state’, nor was he ever a member of a ‘Marxist Party’. (István Mészáros’ Beyond Capital has shown the way to bypass these two notions.) The peculiar conditions under which the proletarians of Petrograd and a few other cities in the Tsarist Empire revolted in 1917 gave an entirely different slant to the whole question. Particular features of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War which followed were taken as the model for every country, and were built into the foundations of the Comintern.

Essentially, the subject and object of social transformation were separated and confused with each other. (Re-read the Theses on Feuerbach, especially the first and second theses.) Recently, I re-read Their Morals and Ours, that most brilliant of the Old Man’s writings. (Long ago, it had played a major role in my decision that I was a Trotskyist.) Trotsky seeks the ultimate criterion for moral action. He ultimately locates this, not in the proletariat, but in the party and its leadership. Re-examining many of the writings of Lenin will reveal the same basic pattern.

Over all three of these aspects of Bolshevism – power, party and workers’ state – hangs a fourth: the notion of theory itself. A complete ‘world outlook’, a ‘body of knowledge’, had to be embodied in a closely-knit organisation, and without it there could be no revolution. This was the medium through which we forced ourselves to look at the world and at our own actions. Herein lies the anatomy of our dogmatism. It is totally opposed to Marx’s idea of what his work was about. Marx never presented his work as a ‘world outlook’. The communists, he stressed, were ‘only’ the most advanced sections of the proletariat. Communism, ‘the movement of the immense majority’, fought to reveal the truth about humanity as it already existed, stripping away the inhuman forms which veiled this truth.

These are a few ideas to which I have come in reflecting on the Healy experience. We should not throw away any aspect of the Marxist tradition, including our own work in the Healy days. But nor should we simply ‘defend our heritage’. Rather, we must carefully separate the ideas of Marx from a mass of other notions. Then, after we have caught up with Marx, we can go beyond the stage he had reached, and discover those new forms of political struggle which arise in the modern world.